Spelunky’s shops may offer welcome respite, but retail therapy always comes at a price
As mechanics go, it’s one of the oldest around: you gather loot, and then spend it. You save, and then you splurge. In games, shops and shopkeepers date back to the early days of pen-and-paper RPGs, but they’ve been steadily spreading outwards for years, moving from the cavernous pits of Diablo to the wilds of Far Cry 2’s jungles, and even turning up in the cluttered and ad-riddled menus of most contemporary freemium iOS titles. Strike gold, and you’ll almost always strike stores to use it in; buying stuff is an aspect of the real world that we repeatedly seem to recreate inside the virtual.
Spelunky’s no stranger to bullion and jewels, of course, but its shops have a far more complex appeal than most. They’re randomised, for starters, which should explain why so many players decide that they’re worth a dangerous detour across a busy map. They’re deadly, too, and that might account for the fact that you so often find yourself holding your breath when you step inside. A spin of the wheel, a squeeze of the trigger: in these ramshackle markets you can find the entire appeal of Derek Yu’s masterpiece squashed down into a single room – a room that could provide you with everything, but could just as easily take it all away again.
Spelunky’s so in love with shopping that one of its biggest secrets is essentially nothing more than a giant mall where you can find the game’s most coveted items
Judged by almost any yardstick, Spelunky is a hard game. Its jungles are filled with toxic snails and pits of glinting spikes, while its ice caverns are riddled with yeti and aliens, neither of which are inclined to be friendly. This is a journey that might terminate in the stomach of a killer plant or underneath a boulder, but you’re just as likely to be frogged to death, or to expire after the blunt trauma caused by a pebble that you hurled across the screen rebounding into you. While you can teach yourself some of the underlying rules – when to risk stealing a golden idol, how best to avoid the dreaded ghost – Spelunky’s procedurally constructed levels mean you’ll rarely come across exactly the same situation twice, and you’ll never be precisely sure what manner of challenge lurks around the next corner.
In such an unforgiving setting, shouldn’t shops become oases of hope? Sometimes, as it happens, they do. Lives are short and the gear you carry makes all the difference – and, thanks to stock randomisation, even the very first vendors might well be selling the most powerful gadgets Spelunky has to offer. You just need either the cash or the guts to lay your hands on their wares.
Even when they aren’t packing game-changers such as the jetpack or shotgun, even the lamest store will still enable you to restock with the bombs and ropes that could see you surviving for at least another level or two. Experienced spelunkers know how to read these scrambled inventories; they realise that shops aren’t just a sudden burst of good fortune or a welcome chance to gather your thoughts. Rather, they’re a rare known point in an uncertain world, an opportunity to gauge how likely you are to succeed once you throw yourself back into the fray.